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Journey to the Valley: A closer look at Lehigh Valley Syrians

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 04 2013 05:03:28 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 05 2013 06:20:39 AM CDT

The threat of military strikes is shining new light on the Lehigh Valley's Syrian community, one of America's largest.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

The threat of military strikes is shining new light on the Lehigh Valley's Syrian community, one of America's largest.

At least 15,000 Syrians live here by some estimates. But who are they, and why did they settle in Pennsylvania?

"We are the largest Syrian community in the United States of America," said Father Anthony Sabbagh of Allentown's St. George Orthodox Church.

A tiny handful of immigrants started the church in 1916, just a few years after the very first Syrians arrived in the Lehigh Valley.

"They had a different language," said Sabbagh. "They did not know anybody."

From those humble beginnings, St. George's is now the center of the area's thriving Syrian population.

"They would come to Ellis Island ... and one of the first railroads they would confront had a big sign that said, 'Lehigh,'" said local historian Frank Whelan.

Almost every local Syrian is Christian, a small minority in their homeland. They even hail from an area called "Christian Valley."

Persecuted by Turks who ruled the region in the 1800s, Christians were lured to Allentown by local Presbyterian missionaries. Those missionaries spread the "gospel" of a better life in the Lehigh Valley's boom times.

"Letters went to Syria," said Whelan. "'Hey, there's jobs for us here, and this is Allentown, we know where it is,' and they would know where they were going."

Syrians found work in local cement quarries, cigar factories, and Bethlehem Steel.

"One tells the story to another to another and so on, so we become like the magnet to bring people here," said Sabbagh.

Today, Syrian culture is very much alive in the old industrial neighborhoods on Allentown's east side. But it's no longer confined to a few blocks. Syrians now occupy almost every line of work in the Valley.

"They work hard, and when they come to this country, they like to open their own business, or they like to look ahead in life," said developer Albert Abdouche, who came here when he was 16. He is now restoring Allentown's old Americus Hotel.

"This is home," he said. "The Lehigh Valley is home to us."

Local Syrians are almost universally opposed to U.S. military strikes in their homeland.

As Christians, they worry about a radical Muslim government taking over. Nevertheless, many say they will still proudly fly the American flag.

"We love it like we love Syria," said Sabbagh. "If we don't love Syria, we don't love America."